Tom Hardy has a thing for pushing the boundaries. As an actor, his dedication towards every role is visible in his performances on screen, and when the British series, “Taboo” came out in 2017, we already knew by the looks of it that it was going to be spectacular. Even from the beginning, some big names like Steven Knight and Ridley Scott were associated with the series, but what’s more interesting about its narrative is that Tom Hardy has written the story along with his father, Chips Hardy.
Set during the early 1800s British Empire, “Taboo” Season 1 follows James Keziah Delaney, who, once assumed to be dead, returns to London after his father, Horace Delaney’s, death. His return sparks a chain of events regarding conflict over a piece of land, the Nootka Sound, which Horace leaves to his son in his will. The land is strategically important for the trade routes with China and acts as a border between two first-world countries, Great Britain and the United States of America, which are currently at war with each other. In the midst of it all, there is one more party that wants its hands on the Nootka Sound in order to create a monopoly in the tea trade with China, and that is none other than His Majesty’s beloved East India Company, which has a love-hate relationship with its own royal Crown. Hence, the question is, to whom will James Delaney swear his loyalty and give them an advantage in the war?
Major Spoilers Ahead
‘Taboo’ Season 1: Plot Summary
After the mysterious death of Horace Delaney, his son, James Keziah Delaney (Tom Hardy), returns to London in 1814, exactly 12 years after his disappearance and rumored death due to the sinking of an unknown vessel carrying enslaved people from Africa. The sudden appearance of James worries not only the English monarchs but also his half-sister, Zilpha (Oona Chaplin), who once shared an intimate relationship with James but married an insurance broker, Thorne Geary, after James’ disappearance.
Before James’ return to London, Sir Stuart Strange, head of the EIC, had held negotiations with Zilpha and Thorne to hand over Nootka Sound to the East India Company. The British Empire and the USA are currently at war with each other, and to end the hostility, the negotiators are preparing depositions to draw the Canadian-American border between the two countries. And due to the strategic position of Nootka Sound, whoever owns the piece of land will have a legal entitlement to the entire island of Vancouver, and along with it, will get the gateway to China.
During Horace’s funeral, his lawyer, Robert Thoyt, informs James that he will inherit the Nootka Sound according to his father’s will. Thoyt even suggests that James sell off the land to the EIC or the Crown, as the land is cursed, and whoever owns it will bring the Crown’s wrath upon him. Instead, James refuses to sell the land and pays off his father’s debtors with the fourteen stolen diamonds that he has brought from Africa.
In the meantime, Stuart’s loyal officer, Benjamin Wilton, informs Stuart and the company that James was a cadet at the EIC and was once a part of Stuart’s own regiment until 1802, when he went to Cabinda on a ship called Cornwallis, from where he boarded a ship called the Influence, bound for Antigua, which was a slave ship that sank off the Gold Coast, suggesting the death of James Delaney. Stuart assumes that James knows a lot of secrets and thus tries to bargain a deal with him with money, which James bluntly refuses.
Later, James seeks an American spy in London named Edgar Dumbarton (Michael Kelly), who works as a surgeon at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. James reveals his demands to talk to the President of the 15 states of America and offer him sovereignty of Nootka Sound in return for a monopoly on the trade of tea and safe passage to America. However, before James can sign a treaty with any other party interested in Nootka Sound, he must present a deed that will prove the ownership of the land that his father, Horace Delaney, bought Nookta Sound and James’ mother, Salish, in exchange for gunpowder.
“Taboo” Season 1 further reveals James’ struggle to prove his claim over the Nookta Sound while two supreme powers in London try to kill him. Amidst the death threats, James tries to convince Zilpha to sail away with him to America, where their relationship will have meaning, but there is one more hurdle in the story. Horace’s other wife, Lorna Bow, a stage actress, appears and demands her claim to the property.
How Did James Prove His Claim To Nootka Sound?
Amidst a series of twists and turns, death threats, and attacks, James Delaney finally came across a woman named Lorna Bow (Jessie Buckley), who happened to be his father’s widow. Lorna surfaced during the execution of Horace’s will and raised a claim on Delaney’s properties. She arrived at the house with all her belongings and blackmailed James to make a deal with the British Crown. However, after a humiliating experience with the king’s secretary, Solomon Coop, Lorna had a change of heart and swore her loyalty to James. She also fell in love with James, a feeling that she never directly expressed to James but suggested subtly to his sister, Zilpha.
At that point, Lorna informed James about his father’s trunk that he left with her, and inside the trunk, James finally found the treaty between his father and the Indian Nootka tribe that proved that Nootka land was bought for gunpowder. But even though James had the loyalty of Lorna and possession of the peace treaty, Sir Stuart Strange tried to seize the property from him and joined forces with the British Crown, or with corrupt Solomon Coop to be precise.
James had sold gunpowder to the United States of America in a war against the British empire that he made from refined saltpeter stolen from the warehouse of the EIC at Wapping Wall with the help of chemist Dr. George Cholmondeley (Tom Hollander), and hence, James was accused of state treason. Stuart’s loyal officer, Edmund Pettifer, hired an assassin to kill Winter, the daughter of a brothel owner, Helga von Hinten, and framed James for the murder, as he was rumored to be suffering from a mental illness under which he had committed some grave crimes. Helga, who was part of James’ organization, the League of the Damned, accused James of betrayal and murdering her daughter and thus decided to testify against him in English Court. In this case, Stuart got a witness to prove James’ treason, and in the event of such crimes against the state, the Crown has the power to seize the lands of the criminal.
But before Stuart could bring James for a trial, James made a deal with George Chichester (Lucian Msamati), a lawyer who had opened a Royal Commission to investigate a vessel named The Influence that sank on July 10th, 1804 and was carrying enslaved Africans. The East India Company was running an illicit network of human trafficking for personal profit, which is why they changed the name of their vessel, The Cornwallis, to The Influence, to load it with a cargo of enslaved people. However, the ship sank with no evidence of their crimes, but there was a man who survived.
James not only decided to testify against Stuart but also brought in Stuart’s minute taker, Michael Godfrey, whose verbal testimony and written records of the EIC would prove the crimes. In return, James made Godfrey a party of his League of the Damned and promised a new life in America, where he wouldn’t have to hide behind the closet.
With this evidence in hand and threats of the Royal Commission, James made a deal with Stuart, and forced him to release Helga, and without the witnesses, Solomon Coop had no proof against James. Stuart tried to strike with his final ace, but James was already a step ahead. At the end of “Taboo” Season 1, it was revealed that American spy Edgar Dumbarton was working for Sir Stuart Strange and tried to persuade James to transfer Nootka Sound to the East India Company, which is when James killed Edgar and sent Lorna to Countess Musgrove to get a safe passage to America along with the codes for the flags. Hence, James and his League of the Damned were ready to leave London for America when suddenly Prince George decided to play dirty and sent his military to kill the culprits.
Taboo: Season 1 Ending Explained: What Plans Does James Delaney Have For Season 2?
After his release from the tower, James found out about Zilpha’s suicide, who was distraught after James abandoned her. The news shattered him into pieces, but at that moment, Lorna lifted his spirits and reminded him that this mission was much more important than James’ personal grievances, as all the members of the League of the Damned were relying upon him. The entire conversation hinted at the subtle romance between James and Lorna, which would further be explored in “Taboo” Season 2.
James ordered his men to kill Stuart’s treacherous loyal officers, Benjamin Wilton and Edmund Pettifer, while James killed Edgar, who was working as a double agent for Stuart. On the other hand, Stuart was expecting a transfer deed from Edgar, in place of which James sent him a bomb designed by Dr. George Cholmondeley that was planned by James beforehand. It could be surmised that Stuart lost his life in the explosion, as his dead body wasn’t revealed in the end.
Meanwhile, the Crown sent his military to stop James and his League of the Damned from sailing away. In the attack, Helga von Hinten lost her life, while Lorna and Cholmondeley were severely injured. Before leaving London, James gifted all his wealth and property to his father’s most loyal caretaker, Brace, to live his remaining life with leisure. At the house, George Chichester found James’ written testimony and company records maintained by Godfrey that proved the East India Company’s involvement in human trafficking. This evidence would help Chichester to begin a trial against the EIC, and the Crown would finally get the upper hand to seize control of the company and renegotiate their terms regarding India, which might be further followed in “Taboo” Season 2.
After escaping the military attack, James commanded Atticus (Stephen Graham) to sail to Ponta Delgada in the Azores, where he wanted to meet a man named Colonay. At this point, James declared his loyalty towards America and also subtly hinted at the use of the gunpowder loaded on his ship. Atticus thought that the gunpowder was for the Americans, but James had already revealed to Godfrey in Episode 4 that he had created the gunpowder to trade with the Indians at Nootka, and unlike the British Crown, the American republic was an open market to sell gunpowder, which was why Dr. George Cholmondeley was so important for James’ plan. Only he knew how to produce gunpowder with limited resources.
Gunpowder would not only help James to deal with the Indians but also with the Americans, and Colonay would aid him in having a conference with the United States of America and demand a monopoly on the tea trade from China in exchange for a treaty for Nootka Sound. The new lands await James Delaney and his League of the Damned, and “Taboo” Season 2 will further follow their struggle to achieve the great American dream.
“Taboo” is a 2017 period drama television series created by Steven Knight.